Coming out of an Illinois State timeout with 16:34 left in the second half, ISU sit-out transfer Keith Fisher III brought his thumb to his four fingers with both hands and said to his teammates, “Talk, talk, talk.”
This came right after Brigham Young’s leading scorer Yoeli Childs sunk a three-pointer to give the Cougars their largest lead at 52-38 while Redbird Arena’s largest crowd of the season became the quietest it had been Wednesday night.
Since then, the Redbirds crept closer and junior Zach Copeland sunk two free-throws with two seconds left to send the game to overtime and he had only one thing on his mind heading to the line.
“Just make it, get us to overtime, give us a chance. I love moments like that though with the game on the line, I cherish those moments,” Copeland said.
Overtime was a game of free-throws as Childs sunk one to give BYU an 89-88 lead, then senior Phil Fayne and junior Josh Jefferson sunk four free-throws right after to secure a 92-89 lead.
With 10 seconds left, BYU junior TJ Haws missed a three, and with BYU’s long rebound, Jahshire Hardnett missed a desperation three-pointer and the Redbirds outlasted the Cougars for a 92-89 win at Redbird Arena.
“A gutty, tough, really good win for us. That’s a good team, I’ve said it before how much I admire coach [Dave Rose],” ISU head coach Dan Muller said.
“Just to step up, make free-throws, big plays, big shots. Our defensive stops in the second half was really, really fun to see our team do that in a pressure situation. That crowd was unbelievable, we don’t win that game without the crowd.”
With senior Milik Yarbrough fouling out with 2:12 left in the second half, senior Keyshawn Evans fouling out barely into overtime, then Copeland fouling out with 1:27 left in the game, and Fayne picking up his fourth foul around the same time, Fayne was left to carefully maneuver BYU’s defense and close out the game as the largest player left for ISU.
With Evans and Copeland out, it was up to Jefferson to run point guard as his first opportunity to lead ISU to a much-needed win after the comeback it surmounted.
Had Fayne picked up his fifth foul, the Redbirds would have been down to only four active players because of an ankle injury sophomore Matt Chastain suffered earlier.
“Coach never really lets me run the one, so like it was a cool feeling running the one, but I had trust in my teammates, they all wanted it and we all fought and we executed and got the W,” Jefferson said.
Fayne recorded a double-double and led ISU with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
The Cougars’ largest lead was 14 points and led for over 25 minutes, as the Redbirds’ first game of a four-game stretch against bigger, more physical teams loomed to be a poor start.
However, the Redbirds did not quit and they did not let Childs’ 6-foot-8, 225-pound frame, and game-leading 27 points, 16 rebounds overwhelm them.
“He [Muller] was just saying keep fighting, keep pushing, it’s not over. Protect the nest,” Jefferson said.
“We’re going to fight to the end no matter what game, our coach put that mentality into the whole team, so we just try to go out there and leave it all out on the floor,” Copeland said.
Once the Redbirds moved into a zone defense, they were able to make huge stops down the stretch in the second half that cued their 14-point comeback.
“We went into zone and I just feel like our energy picked up, the fans gave us a big boost, our teammates, everybody’s hype. I feel like we just picked it up and it worked out,” Jefferson said.
It was a true shootout, as both teams shot 40 percent from the floor, but ISU’s 43 percent stroke from three-point range compared to BYU’s 21 percent three-point shooting proved to be the difference.
“They [ISU] did zone us at times, it helped them, they got kind of back in the game when they were down 12 or 13,” BYU head coach Dave Rose said.
Fisher III’s message, and his message just before halftime when he yelled to his teammates, “Execute!” seemed to have reached the Redbirds’ minds.
The Redbirds out-scored the Cougars 47-38 in the second half and 14-11 in overtime.
Before fouling out, Evans totaled his season-high 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the floor (3-7 3FG).
Yarbrough ended with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting and a huge 4-for-5 from three-point range, as his last three-pointer extended the Redbirds’ lead to 76-72, seconds before fouling out.
ISU moves to 6-2 with its critical non-conference win and carry much-needed momentum back into Redbird Arena for its 2 p.m. tipoff with San Diego State for the Missouri Valley Conference/Mountain West Conference Challenge.